Wednesday, March 28, 2018

April Fool! (Reflections on the Resurrection of Our Lord)

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He Qi (Contemporary Chinese Artist) "Women Arriving at the Tomb"

“…who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome.” (From the Eucharistic Preface for Passion Sunday and Maundy Thursday; Lutheran Book of Worship, 1977. This is updated from a similar preface from the Lutheran Church Book of 1886.)

I have to remember to call my sister this Easter. Of course, I should do that every Easter, but this one is special. April 1st happens to be her birthday. Sixty-one years ago our mom was told the surprising news that she was carrying twins. They were expected around May 15th.

April fool!! Mother went into labor and delivered a month and a half early, proving once again that God’s timetable is never ours. There’s a lot of truth in saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”

There’s been a lot of surprising, unplanned, and unexpected stuff in the news lately, hasn’t there? The world has certainly been saddened by the death of eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, but Professor Hawking’s demise was actually predicted fifty-five years ago when he was first diagnosed with ALS. The current life expectancy for an ALS patient is two to four years. Not only did the famous physicist defy medical science by half a century, but he lived a most productive life and encouraged others with disabilities as he did so. You never know, do you?

And what about those youngsters who’ve been marching in Washington in protest of gun violence? They call it the March for Our Lives. For almost two decades America has seen one mass shooting after another: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary, Las Vegas, Sutherland Park, Parkland, etcetera, etcetera. Over and over again, and nothing has changed. It would be reasonable to expect that nothing will change given our recent history. But, surprisingly, a new generation has taken to the streets to advocate for sensible gun laws, and that new generation isn’t even old enough to vote. And they are making an impact. Who saw that coming?

Life is full of surprises, and Easter is the greatest surprise of all. Here is the story of a good and wise and loving man—Jesus. As a child he surprised the elders of his religion with his understanding of their scriptures. As an adult he perplexed the people of his day by welcoming outsiders and people they thought weren’t fit to be associated with. He astounded everyone with his ability to bring healing to the sick. He amazed the crowds when he, a simple peasant, preached truth and made divine mysteries understandable to them. And he shocked the temporal leaders with his open opposition to their hypocrisy and oppression.

Not surprisingly, however, those leaders accused him falsely and executed him by impaling him on a piece of wood.

But—April fool!—God raised him from the dead. It was natural to expect that such a horrible death would be an end to Jesus, but, surprisingly, the story still goes on. And history bears this out.

Even the most passionate atheist has to admit that something happened in the third decade of the Common Era which brought new life to this planet. Something happened connected to this man Jesus which made twelve scared Jewish peasants want to tell the world. Something happened which turned an ardent Pharisee like Paul of Tarsus into a fearless evangelist. Something happened which led, within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion, to people on three continents worshiping him as their Savior. Something happened which caused Christian martyrs to defy Roman law and go singing praises to their deaths in the Roman arena. Something happened which caused the empire which executed Jesus and sought to eliminate his followers to embrace him as Lord. Something happened which caused the entire Western World to date its calendar from the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Our Easter gospel (Mark 16:1-8) is full of surprising details. Who could imagine that the horror of crucifixion would create a movement and become a symbol for divine love? Who would imagine that God would choose two scared women to be the evangelists who would change the history of the world? Who would tell those women to find Peter, the man who had proven the most cowardly and disappointing, and single him out to bear the Good News?

God’s ways are never what we expect them to be, are they? And if there’s one piece of really freeing Good News today, it’s that the resurrection story reminds us that we’re not the ones driving this bus. We can’t predict, we can’t control, we can’t micro-manage anything. As Saint Paul reminds us:

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is wiser than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

I hope we come away from every Easter celebration reminding ourselves that God is still in the business of surprising us, and that the surprises are far from over.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Learning to BE Loved (Reflections on Maundy Thursday)

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“For I have set for you an example that you also should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)

My late mother-in-law suffered from Alzheimer’s. One of the worst and most undignified aspects of that dread malady was her frequent incontinence. My wife and I were visiting with her and my father-in-law one day when Mom was quite advanced in her illness. She’d been sitting for some time in her favorite chair when it was time to come to the table for a meal. When we got her up, we realized she had soiled herself. She hadn’t been aware this had happened and was dreadfully embarrassed. My wife took her up to her bedroom to get her cleaned up. She lovingly wiped her mother down and helped her into clean clothes. During the procedure, Mom said to her daughter, “I can’t believe you’re wiping my butt!” My wife replied, “Why not? You used to do it for me.”

We’re all willing to be servants to our kids, aren’t we? We’ll feed them, bathe them, wipe up their sick, find their lost articles of clothing, take them to school, shell out money like a loose slot machine, listen to their complaints, and do everything in our power to keep them healthy and happy. But someday we’ll have to relinquish our mighty position of superiority and acknowledge that they have become our servants, protectors, and advisors. That will be a hard day.

You see, we all have a bit of Simon Peter in us. He glories in his love and respect for Jesus in our Maundy Thursday gospel reading ( John 13:1-17, 31b-35), even though we’ll find that he so quickly denies that love out of fear. He won’t let Jesus do the servant work. The work usually done by a child or a woman or a slave is too undignified for his rabbi, he thinks. Peter wants to make a great show of his devotion. He loves Jesus, but he’s having a little trouble just letting Jesus love him. He keeps thinking he’s got something to prove.

But Jesus sets him straight. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). Peter has to come to terms with the idea that he has no power or control over Jesus’ love. He can’t earn it with his devotion. He can’t work hard enough to be worthy of it. He just has to accept that Jesus loves him and is willing to do everything for him—even die on a cross.

“Could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow;
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”

I think before we really know how to love, we have to know how to receive love. We have to find a way to make it not about us. That’s why we come to the table of Holy Communion. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus commanded us to eat this meal in remembrance of him so we would regularly be reminded how much he loves us.

We are to remember that he loved us first. We are forgiven and blessed because of who Jesus is, not because of who we are. When we get that, we’ll really know how to love others, and the world will get that we are his followers.

God bless, my friend. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

How Brief the "Hosannas" (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

There’s been some trouble at my old alma mater—once known as the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia—now the United Lutheran Seminary, a merger of the Philadelphia and Gettysburg seminaries. About two years ago (if memory serves) some ecclesiastical geniuses realized that rising costs and declining enrollment made it necessary to combine the two schools. Technology and the wonder of “distance learning” enabled the combined institution to reduce staff and share resources. It seems like a great idea, and I’m sure there was much cheering and clapping seven months ago when the United Lutheran Seminary Board of Trustees named the eminent scholar Dr. Theresa Latini as the first president of the new institution.

Unfortunately, the cheering has recently been replaced with cries of “Crucify!” from an angry student body which now views the appointment of Dr. Latini as an egregious act of betrayal.

Here’s what went down: Dr. Latini, in her much younger days, took a salaried position with a Presbyterian organization called One by One. The chief goal of this organization was believed to be to “pray away the gay.” That is, it was supposedly dedicated to “curing” same-gender oriented people of their homosexuality. In the years since taking employment with One by One, Dr. Latini has come to repudiate the mission of this organization, embrace LGBT people with love and acceptance, and completely reject and denounce all forms of so-called “conversion therapy” for the quackery and bigoted sham they are. She has been, I’m given to understand, a great supporter of LGBT rights, and is otherwise a thoroughly qualified Christian scholar who upholds the doctrine, morals, and social principles of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Nevertheless, when her past involvement with One by One was somehow made known to the ULS community, it lit a spark of outrage which burst into full conflagration involving students both gay and straight, faculty, alumni, and the Board of Trustees. The result of this maelstrom has been Dr. Latini’s dismissal which was announced the week of March 11th. I suspect the Board felt it was better that one Presbyterian be sacrificed for the sake of the seminary nation.

I have no dog in this fight myself. I don’t know Dr. Latini and I’m only familiar with the bare outline of these doings which I’ve sketched above. This episode, however, speaks to me as we prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday. How quick the “Hosannas!” get replaced with “Crucify!” What is it, I wonder, which makes us laud an individual one moment and rip that same person to tatters the next? How has sin so infiltrated our collected personality that we glory in scandal or in watching the fall and ruin of other human beings? How very quick we are to take offense, to feel betrayal, and to project our disappointment onto others.

On Palm Sunday Jesus is surrounded by crowds practically fainting with joy to get a glimpse of him. They’re turning their own threadbare cloaks into a red carpet to lay before this humble king. But, by Thursday, Jesus will find himself alone. Only his mother and Mary Magdalene along with one lone male disciple will stand by him to the end.

Where are the others? What were they thinking on that Sunday when they spread their cloaks on the road and waved their palm branches? Did they think Jesus would be their revolutionary king who would restore their egos and make Israel great again?

What do you think you’d want from Jesus? Will we cheer his entry because he’s who we want him to be—our personal therapist in times of trouble or our yardstick by which we can judge others? Or can we welcome him for who he is—the one sent to teach us all much-needed forgiveness, and, in so doing, transform us into the world’s humble servants?

Thanks for stopping by my friend. Have a blessed Holy Week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

No Need for Law (Reflections on Lent 5, Year B)

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"Crucifixion" Salvador Dali 1954

“…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…” (Jeremiah 31:33)

Psychologists tell us that the brains of middle school students are not fully developed. I spent six agonizing years as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles, and I can attest that—fully developed or not—the middle school brain is diabolically clever. These kids may not know much about grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but they could pass the bar exam as jailhouse lawyers.

“I wasn’t chewing gum, Mr. Griffiths. I was only sucking on a wad of gum. My jaws didn’t move. Ergo: I violated no rule against chewing gum in class.”

You get the idea.

One of my colleagues at the last school where I taught refused to post a list of rules in his classroom. His logic was that the average middle school student is capable of devising more infractions than a list can enumerate. He therefore let it be known that any behavior he deemed to be disrespectful or detrimental to the education of others was prohibited and subject to disciplinary action. He further maintained that the students were old enough to know what such behaviors would be.

My fellow educator’s vison for classroom decorum is, I think, something of an echo of that vison which that quixotic prophet Jeremiah has for the new Kingdom of Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In a perfect world, there will be no need for rules and regulations. Everyone will have God’s Law written on their hearts, and covenants will become obsolete.

This is a pretty swell vision to hold onto as we near the end of our Lenten journey. When we contemplate Jesus “lifted up from the earth (John 12:32),” we should find that we have no more need for the Law and its lifeless, static regulations. What we have instead is the picture before our eyes of a man bleeding and dying, mocked, disgraced, helpless as an old lady in a nursing home, and more lonely than we could imagine (or maybe you could. I don’t know). We also see the love and compassion and forgiveness that flows off the cross with his blood. It is a visceral image—forgiving his tormentors, creating family for his mother with the disciple, comforting the dying thief—all as his life is slowly draining from him. With this before us, do we really need a set of rules or any kind of contract?

Like the grain of wheat which “dies” in the earth, we needed to lose Jesus in order to find him. We have to see him suffering for and with us in order to grasp his love, and we need him to ascend to the Father so we can take on his mission here on earth and bear the fruit he intended for us to bear.

The new covenant, as we say in the Words of Institution, is in his blood shed for us. It’s not a list of rules, it’s now a relationship with Jesus. The simple phrase, “What would Jesus do?” is actually rather poignant, don’t you think? But instead of asking for our Lord’s advice on daily behavior, a better question might be: Who would Jesus have us be?

Thanks for stopping by, my friend. Please come again.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Just Plunge Right In! (Reflections on the Parting of the Red Sea)

Image result for Images Moses parting the waters
During Lent this year the smart folks who put together my Lutheran worship guide have recommended focusing on the mighty acts of God which would be part of the traditional liturgy of the Great Vigil of Easter. We don't do the Great Vigil in my parish—even though I'm a liturgical junkie. Unfortunately, I'm a lazy liturgical junkie, and the Great Vigil is just too friggin' long a service and too complicated to put together. I much prefer to sleep Saturday night and get up early the next day to do Easter Sunrise. But this means, of course, that we don't get to read the long scripture passages which are so much a part of the Great Vigil. To rectify that, we're doing five of the miraculous passages as part of our Lenten mid-week devotions. This week we're looking at the story of the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14: 10-31 and 15:20-21.

We all know this story of God's mighty act of deliverance. You've probably seen Charlton Heston part the sea every Easter in ABC's annual broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments—a film that's so breathtakingly bad that it's actually good!

When I look at the scripture today I am impressed by the truth of it. Okay. It sounds pretty wild that God would open a passage in an enormous inlet which is several miles wide at it's narrowest point and would take literally days—if not an entire week—to cross on foot. If you're into historic accuracy, I've heard it suggested (Read Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses) that the Isrealites actually escaped through the Sea of Reeds, a much narrower and shallower body of water on the African side of the Sinai peninsula. I really believe that the story of the Red Sea rescue was based on an historic occurrence, but it's been raised to mythological status through the re-telling.

But that's not the point. What strikes me is how the Bible author tells the story, pointing out the faithlessness of the people. The cry-babies whine when they see Pharaoh's army, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you (Moses) have taken us away to die in the wilderness?..It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Now ain't that just like us..? Whenever we face a great change, our sinful selves are tempted to go back to the devil we know than risk the devil we don't know.

Alcoholics Anonymous, in spite of its great success, has about a 50% failure rate. That is, at least one out of every two alcoholics who go into the program will drink again. If you consider that some folks see drinking as part of their personality or culture, you can see that they'd feel a part of themselves was missing once they gave it up. The fear having nothing to fill that empty space drives them right back to the booze. Similarly, a psychologist friend of mine once told me that some battered women will leave their abusive husbands or partners and return as much as four or five times before they finally have the courage to sever the toxic relationship for good. Change means loss, and loss means fear. Sometimes we fear the emptiness so much that we resist the blessings because we've grown comfortable with the curse.

The other thing that always strikes me when I think of this story (and I always think of this when I watch Yul Brynner as De Mille's Pharaoh ordering his chariots to advance into the parted waters) is: What a dumb-ass you'd have to be to not see that this was a trap. I mean, didn't God already rain ten plagues on Egypt? Didn't he hinder the advance of the army with a pillar of cloud? Don't they know they're messing with the wrong God, and that this God just don't like ugly?

Of course Pharaoh doesn't get it. Logic and reason don't run the world—passion and ego do. Like Hitler attacking into the endless Russian winter or the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam or Iraq, it's easy for a desperate ego to ignore all common sense and plunge into disaster. As human beings, we do it all the time. We run headlong into chaos, ignoring the cost to others and the stated will of God. God didn't punish Pharaoh so much as Pharaoh brought the punishment on himself.

Finally, I think of the blessing God sometimes gives us in desperation. Our desperation is God's opportunity. Sometimes we just can't go back, so we have to go forward. All we can do is trust that, even in the swirling chaos, our God is still an awesome God who wants the best for us in spite of our doubts, fears, and mistakes. And maybe next time we'll have a little more trust and a little more peace.

Peace be with you!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Covenant for a Nation of Kardashians (Reflections on Lent 3, Year B)

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“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3)

I was talking the other day to a friend of mine whom I’ll call “Lisa” (because that’s her name). She was telling me about her college-age daughter. “I think she thinks she’s a Kardashian,” Lisa said.  “I can’t believe the things that come out of her mouth.”

My friend was lamenting a certain smugness and feeling of entitlement that she’s observed in the young. Personally, I’m not that sure that entitlement is only the purview of millennials. There’s something in our sinful nature which makes us all feel rather smug and entitled. I think America has become something of a nation of Kardashians—it’s so easy for us to take blessings for granted and, turning upside down the situation in the Gospel lesson assigned for Lent 3, Year B (John 2:13-22), turn the marketplace into our temple (v.16). We want to be noticed, we want to be praised for our uniqueness (as if that’s our own doing), and we want to enjoy the “good things” even if we don’t know what the “good things” really are.

That’s why it’s good for us on our spiritual journey to go back to the Covenant at Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17) which the Revised Common Lectionary marries to this week’s Gospel reading. If you’ve been following these blogposts, you’ll note that the theme which has been running through the Hebrew Scripture lessons this Lent has been the theme of “covenant”—the mutual promise between two parties. In this case, the parties are God and us. In the previous Sundays in Lent we’ve encountered the Covenant with Noah (God unconditionally promises NOT to destroy the earth—even though He says nothing about letting us destroy it), and the Covenant with Abraham (God promises to bless us to be a blessing to the world, provided we have the faith to believe Him).

This week, on Lent 3, God seems to up the stakes a little. Yet, if you think about it, the Covenant at Sinai (the Ten Commandments) is not really a demand God puts on God’s people in order to bless them. God already blessed the people when He gave them the Law. The Law was not a precondition for God’s mercy. The Law is meant to be a response to that mercy.

(Donald Trump must despise God, don’t you think? Since God turns out to be such a lousy deal-maker. I mean, what good businessman makes such one-sided deals which benefit the other party? Who gives away a benefit before asking for conditions of granting it? If God were a contestant on The Apprentice, Trump would fire him in a heartbeat!)

Indeed, all of us are recipients of blessings too numerous to count. On our crappiest day we are still part of the wonder of human existence, still able to feel the breeze, look to the stars, fall in love, and smile at a child. For some, circumstances are dire; nevertheless, for every victim of war, oppression, famine, or sickness God has provided a heart with the desire to rescue, feed, or bring healing. God never stops being good because we lose the ability to see the goodness or because human sinfulness has rendered the ability to behave virtuously impossible.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Our obedience to the Covenant at Sinai—weak, incomplete, and grudgingly given as it always is—doesn’t do God any favors. God will be God with or without our compliance. Our obedience is meant to be blessing to us. How satisfying to say, “God brought me out of the land of Egypt. I really love him for that, and I’m going to try to rejoice in that blessing by loving God and loving everybody else, too!”

Think about it: Has God brought you out of the bondage of Egypt? What is your Egypt? Is it an oppressive relationship? Fear of privation when you lost a job? A medical emergency? The grief of loss over a loved one? Addiction to drugs or alcohol? Fear for your family? Perhaps you’re still in Egypt or perhaps you’re yet to go there. But it might just be that you have come through a sea of painful emotion which, at the time, seemed like it would drown you.

But it didn’t.

So how do you respond?

I’m always puzzled by the thinking of the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary, and I often don’t know why they pair certain Hebrew Scripture readings with certain Gospel readings. What do the Ten Commandments have to do with Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2? Fortunately, the good Lutherans at 1517 Media (formerly Augsburg Fortress) explain it in the gloss in their weekly church bulletin inserts:

“…because God alone has freed us from the powers that oppressed us, we are to let nothing else claim first place in our lives. When Jesus throws the merchants out of the temple, he is defending the worship of God alone and rejecting the ways commerce and profit-making can become our Gods.”

Okay. I’ll go with that.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment. I love hearing from you!